When I give marketing advice, I sometimes qualify it by saying, “unless you write literary fiction.” The regular rules and traditional strategies don’t always apply to literary fiction. Authors who want to write the kind of book English teachers will assign to their classes need to know what works and what doesn’t.

  • What is literary fiction?
  • How is it different than genre fiction?
  • How do you market it successfully?

To find out, I interviewed Jane Friedman. She is editor and founder of The Hot Sheet, the essential industry newsletter for authors. She is also the author of The Business of Being a Writer and Publishing 101 (Affiliate Links). 

What is literary fiction?

Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: Let’s start by defining literary fiction. What is it?

Jane Friedman: It’s a torturous question because everyone defines it a little differently. There are a lot of arguments about what literary fiction is. It’s the sort of fiction that the authors hope will be assigned as required reading in college classes. It rewards rereading. It could win a major literary award like the National Book Award in the United States or maybe the Nobel Prize by the end of your life.

Literary fiction novels are not beach reads. They’re meant to be taken seriously. They’re not clear cut. The language is elevated in a way that demonstrates the writers are taking seriously both the story and the expression of the story.

Thomas: So if it has a giant dragon fighting a spaceship on the cover, it’s probably not literary fiction.

Jane: Probably not, but this is where you can get into some really fierce arguments about what “literary” means. It’s sometimes defined by what it’s not, and literary fiction is not science fiction, fantasy, or romance.  This is not to say that genre fiction is poorly written. That’s not the point.

I went to school for creative writing and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts. In those programs, you don’t generally see genre fiction being read. We can argue about whether that’s right or wrong, but if you’re encountering a book in a Bachelor or Master of Fine Arts program, it’s literary fiction.

Thomas: With traditional fiction or nonliterary fiction, the language–the writing–is seen as a means. It’s a way of getting to a goal.

For nonfiction, language is used to convince your readers of your argument or help them think in a new way.

For fiction, the language is the means by which you tell the story. Whereas in literary fiction, the writing itself isn’t necessarily the goal, but it’s a part of the goal. If I’m writing a literary novel, I’m not just writing a story. I’m also wanting the words and sentences themselves to be beautiful.

Those nice definitions didn’t include the fact that literary fiction is the kind of fiction that’s hard to sell.

How does literary fiction differ when it comes to marketing?  

Jane: It goes back to the MFA program issue. When those books are read in those programs, it produces a certain community. It has its own culture and value system with various pieces.

People ask different questions of literary fiction. They want to know who’s going to review you.
What are their names and the reputations?

Here’s an example. Flashback to the mid-2000s, when Oprah’s Book Club was still in operation. At that time, one of the best ways to sell a book was to be featured in her book club. That club ended its first iteration when she chose Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections as a pick for her book club. The Corrections is a landmark literary novel, and Jonathan Franzen is the poster child for literary fiction in the U.S.

When Oprah chose his novel, Franzen felt conflicted because the fact that Oprah chose it might have damaged his literary credibility. Oprah is known for choosing more commercially appealing, bestselling sorts of books.

When he didn’t appreciate her choosing his book, Oprah was insulted, and she ended the book club. That’s the weight that literary fiction has with within its own community. There’s status anxiety associated with the community.

Thomas: Status seems to be really important within the literary fiction community. Anyone can write a dragon book or a romance, and they don’t need to be a part of “the club.” But it seems like if you want to write literary fiction, you have to be living in a nice apartment in New York City and going to the right parties. People from low-status areas aren’t even invited to the parties. Is that an unfair assessment, or is that how it is?

Jane: I don’t think it’s unfair. It’s very clubby. It’s about who you know, who’s reading you, who’s talking about you, who mentored you, and what sort of workshops and programs accepted you. From the outside, it doesn’t look very admirable. It has resulted in some diversity problems for the publishing industry, which are now coming to the forefront. That’s one reason marketing a literary novel is difficult unless you have inroads into that club.

Thomas: A lot of the traditional marketing would diminish your status. In the boardgame world, games are classified as a beer-and-pretzels game or a wine-and-cheese game.

In a wine-and-cheese board game, you’ll play an eight-hour simulation of World War II with tanks that have different values. That’s a wine-and-cheese game.  Monopoly is a beer-and-pretzels game.

Literary fiction is a wine-and-cheese genre. It sells to people attending events that cost $1,000 per plate. They talk about your book to other people who are paying a $1,000 per plate. Amazon ads may not do much for you if your literary fiction.

Have you seen amazon ads work for literary fiction?

Jane: They can work, but you have to have the right signaling. So much of marketing literary fiction is signaling.

Literary authors don’t typically market themselves because it’s seen as beneath them. It would tarnish the whole enterprise to be seen as marketing your book on social media. So that’s one challenge.

The other challenge is that the audience you’re marketing to is concerned with some of the signals that indicate the book matches their identity. They won’t buy unless they consider it a book they ought to be reading in order to keep up with the community they belong to.

Amazon ads aren’t typically how that audience finds out about its next read, but it doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t work. You must be strategic.

You need the right cover, the right description, and all the right signs that show people it’s OK if you found this book through BookBub, Amazon, or a Facebook ad.

Thomas: If you look at the ancestry of literary fiction, it used to be written by aristocrats for aristocratic readers. It was for the landed gentry who didn’t need to work. Working was considered to be beneath them. They had stewards who looked after their estates. And so why would you market your book like you needed the money from it?

Obviously, literary fiction is no longer written by aristocrats for aristocrats. Hopefully it’s a little more inclusive now. But some of that perception is still there.

I often say book awards don’t matter. Readers don’t care about awards unless you write literary fiction. If you do, suddenly the fact that you won a Pulitzer Prize or a prestigious award really does matter.

Which literary awards are important?

Jane: There are so many of them, and there’s a pecking order. If you’re outside this culture, you might not know what the pecking order is or which ones you need. It gets messy quickly.

In the United States we have the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, and the PEN awards. They have a whole range of awards for different types of work.

We also have some fairly important genre-specific awards like the Whiting Award. It’s important for literary authors to submit their book to the award organizations. But many of these awards won’t even accept your application or your book unless your publisher submits it.

Thomas: There’s no submissions department at the Nobel Prize in Literature, and it’s not a review where you pay $500 and they’ll see if your book is deserving of a Nobel Prize.

You’re talking about the traditional publishers, and traditional publishers pay to submit books to various awards. This is the case for fiction across the board.

So the first panel of readers you must convince is the publisher, because they have to pay for every book that gets submitted. They may have published 100 or 200 books for that imprint in a year, but they only submit one or two.

If you’re independently published, often you’re not even eligible for the award.

What are the tips for winning awards?

Do you have tips for winning awards, or is it a matter of writing the best book or having gone to the most prestigious MFA program?

Jane: If you’re self-publishing or published with a small press, you will probably be submitting it to the award yourself. Some awards are more accessible, and it’s not about who you know or where else you’ve been reviewed. The Benjamin Franklin Awards and the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) are more accessible. There’s a wonderful program run by Biblio Board called the Indie Author Project, which is a librarian-selected award. About 15 or 16 states and some Canadian territories participate in that program, and you don’t even have to pay to enter that one.

You do have to be careful because some awards are essentially for-profit enterprises that make money through the submission fees. You have to be really selective in where you decide to submit because some of these are just there to take your money and then charge you for additional marketing if you win.

Research the aftereffects for a winning author. See what the prize did to support that winner. Did the winner go on to do other things? You have to study the outcome.

Thomas: Do you know of any list or curators of the prestigious awards?

How do we find out which awards are considered prestigious?

Jane: The pecking order isn’t really published anywhere, you just come to understand it over time. If you’re looking for literary style awards, Poets and Writers has a nice free database at their site, and that’s a good place to start.

Thomas: Indie authors often struggle with the status that we’re talking about, especially in the literary world. Is literary fiction open to independent authors? Or do need to be accepted by a prestigious publishing house before the rest of it opens to you?

Jane: You have to be a pretty charismatic individual if you’re going to approach the literary market as a self-published author with Book One. There’s leeway for people who’ve already got some traditional publishing experience under their belt. They’ve already had a couple of books released by recognized publishers in the literary community. They’ve already gotten some of the reviews from The New York Times or other important publications. In any event, you’ve already got the name, status, and credibility.

After you’ve established yourself, you can look a little more punk or indie or cool if you go off and do some things by yourself. Usually, it’s possible to go back. Caroline Preston is one author who has done this successfully, and there are others.

But if you were just going to self-publish from the start, I think you would have to be such a go-getter and not care at all about the way people will look down their noses at you. You’ll just have to be prepared to be ignored for a very long time.

Thomas: We’re painting literary fiction with a dark brush, but there are many people who enjoy reading literary fiction. There are so few gatekeepers who determine what’s good literary fiction. Is that something you see changing? Or is that just how it’s going to stay?

Jane: I don’t see it changing anytime soon. Although, as I alluded to earlier, there are diversity issues that are coming to the fore.

Some of the truly innovative and important voices are coming from small and independent publishers. If you look at an independent house like Grove Atlantic, which is the literary house that’s not owned by one of the Big Five, they’ve published at least a couple of the most recent big award winners.

There are nooks and crannies where important work gets accepted. Maybe it’s not on the radar of the Big Five, but it’s still coming from the literary houses. They’re not paying big advances, and they do take more risks.

But still, it’s hard to see it changing in the community that supports it–independent bookstores, The New York Times, literary book bloggers and podcasters. Now there’s LitHub which is the literary fiction solution to marketing.

What is LitHub?

Thomas: Tell us about LitHub.

Jane: Lit Hub was spearheaded by some of the biggest names in literary publishing, including Grove Atlantic and Andy Hunter, who launched Bookshop, the virtuous alternative to shopping at Amazon for your books. They wanted to create the Huffington Post of literary the community, and they’ve been very successful. I think their site is well trafficked. They’ve got multiple podcasts. They even have a crime-reads offshoot because crime can be literary, too.  It’s been interesting to watch.

Thomas: The golden chalice at the end of literary fiction isn’t a review in The New York Times, at least not financially. It’s having thousands of high school teachers force their students to buy your book.

The education side of publishing textbooks makes as much money as all of the rest of commercial publishing combined. Millions of fiction authors are fighting over their half of the stack of money. Meanwhile, there’s a handful of professors writing textbooks that students are required to buy for $350.

While your literary fiction will be won’t sell for $350, it will be purchased by thousands or tens of thousands of students every year. And that can be an enduring amount of money.

How can I let English professors know about my literary fiction book?

Thomas: Who are the gatekeepers in getting English professors and teachers to know about your book?

Jane: Start by getting acquainted with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs community. It’s a collection of more than 1,000 creative writing programs and creative writing teachers. They all convene annually at a conference which has a book fair, and they talk about things like how to teach creative writing and what to put on your syllabus.

Hopefully your publisher or you (if you’re independently published) would want to go to this event. Your publisher would be there with your books on display. They would be advertising in the program, which is the size of a phone book.

There are other AWP related marketing activities you could participate in. You kind of graduate from AWP to Poets and Writers after you’re out of the creative writing programs. Poets and Writers also offers advertisements in the classifieds that point to books that professors of creative writing will see. It’s a way to make sure your book appears again and again in those channels that professors pay attention to.

Thomas: Winning awards is great, but the part that we’re not talking about is, but really needs to be stressed, is that you must write a good literary novel.

Writing a good book is the first button on the shirt. If it’s off, none of the other buttons are right.  

Let’s talk briefly about libraries, because libraries are another channel that can be helpful for literary novels.

What’s the path into libraries for literary author?

Jane: If you’re independently published, you need to get your ebook distributed into Overdrive, which is the big distributor to libraries. That can be done through the distributors like Smashwords or Draft2Digital. If you’re using Ingram Spark for the print distribution, libraries will be able to order your print book, but they might not know it exists.

That’s when we ask how much time you want to spend approaching libraries personally. You’d say, “Hey, my book is coming out, and I’m doing a marketing campaign to drive patrons to your library to check out this book.” Your one-on-one meetings with libraries have to be that specific. You must detail how your campaign will help the library.

This is where your Facebook ads can be useful if you let people know your book is available at your local library. The library sees there’s something in it for them.

This all assumes that the library will accept your book in the first place. If you’re self-published and have no reviews, if no one’s vouched for you, a librarian is probably going to be skeptical. They’ll want to see something that helps them know the book is high-quality without them having to read it.

Thomas: Libraries put a lot of stock in Kirkus, Publisher Weekly, and Library journal reviews. So we’re not just talking about Amazon reviews.  

Jane: If you’re writing children’s work, School Library Journal becomes pretty important.

Thomas: Literary novels, the top ones, are incredibly profitable.

Jane: The most successful literary novels are very, very, very successful. But it’s always dangerous, especially for students in these creative writing programs, to make that their goal. They see that as a goal, but such a small percentage of writers actually reach that pinnacle.

Thomas: If you write To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s recommended in every English class around the country, you only need to write one book, and you’ll still have one of the best-selling books every year.

The Business of Being a Writer

Thomas: Jane, you and I are on opposite sides of the same coin. I’m trying to introduce literary fiction to business-minded authors. You’re trying to introduce business thinking to literary fiction authors. You explain that being an author can be a business.

Tell us about your book, The Business of Being a Writer.

Jane: I wrote it with the creative writing student in mind. I would go to conferences like the AWP, and I’d see the same wakeup call happening again and again. Panelists to who had moved into their careers after being attendees or students would say, “I wish someone had told me that I wouldn’t make any money at this.”  

Thomas: Every high school student is told, go to college and you’ll get a good job and make lots of money. But they’re never told that the major you choose will dictate your employability and earning power.

Jane: The level of expectation is astonishing. Maybe people see their professors making a living, but those jobs are few and far between at this point.

In addition to the unmet expectations, I saw a lot of questions about what needed to be done in order to get published.

Students and fomer students were asking, “If I want to earn money that equates to a living, what else can I do aside from publishing a book?”

There’s frankly too much book focus in the literary community. There’s also, a sense that they can’t share things on social media before they’re ready. Some of them think they have to do their weird reclusive writer’s thing, and then come back to bestow their genius on the world, and that equals profit. My book is trying to destroy that that myth.

Thomas: I really like that kind of business approach. In the book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey teaches that effective people begin with the end in mind. To do that, you must know what that end is. Otherwise it very easily becomes a Ponzi scheme where you see a millionaire author and someone says, “You too can be a millionaire author! All you have to do is spend $50,000 on an MFA degree and then you can make millions of dollars!”

But you don’t realize that last year none of the students became millionaires. The year before, none of the students became millionaires. In the year before that, one of them did.

It’s a rare outcome. It’s a lot like music school. A handful of famous musicians go on to perform, and everybody else ends up being music teachers. A lot of MFA students become editors. Others get jobs in other industries. Some of them become English teachers. But your book isn’t about becoming a millionaire author.

Jane: Correct. I’m trying to ease people into the idea that by sharing their work, by connecting with people in the community through literary citizenship, by having an online presence, by doing all of these things, they’ll have a more robust and interesting career than if they rely on a publisher to pull them through.

There’s too much dependency in the mindset of students in our creative writing school. They believe they must be selected by a publisher to receive validation before they can continue. My book says, “No you don’t.”

Thomas: There are other kinds of fiction out there. Is that what you’re saying?

Jane: Yes. You can write other things. There are other ways to make money aside from just being paid by a publisher. If you want to write books, then certainly you can do that. But you may have to compromise. If you only want to write books, you may have to compromise the genre you prefer writing, or increase your speed in writing. You might have to think more about the market if that’s all you want to do.

You can write whatever you want and play the literary game if you want. But you’re going to need a rich husband, spouse, inheritance, or a day job in order to make that work.

Thomas: Successful authors have often had to grind for 10 or 20 years before seeing results. This is less true with genre fiction.

I read military sci fi, and I don’t care what awards my sci-fi authors have. I want the space marines shooting the space aliens. I’m expecting certain tropes. It’s a different kind of game.

And it’s a more approachable game in that there are fewer gatekeepers. The readers themselves act as gatekeepers for themselves. They make their own choices when they look at Amazon reviews.

With literary fiction, there’s a handful of very influential people that dictate what others read, sometimes literally forcing them to read. There’s a lot of power in literary fiction and there’s less structural power outside of it.

Jane:  I’m reminded that when I was in a creative writing program, fiction was probably most valued genre because that’s where you saw the fame and the commercial success come together.

It’s hard to do that with poetry, and it’s more achievable with fiction. If I wasn’t going to be a professor of poetry, I felt like I had to write fiction to advance in my career. But I actually wasn’t interested in writing fiction. It took me years after college to realize writing fiction wasn’t compelling to me. I was doing it because it was part of the cultural value system I was taught.

It takes time and self-awareness for the average writer, especially those coming out of a creative writing program, to understand what they want out of this.

Thomas: I’d love to tell every high school kid going to college to try to get an internship or experience in the field you’re studying.

Many students spend four years in college and then three years in law school, only to spend a week at a law firm and realize they hate it. They hate their life, and they’re $100,000 in debt. The only way to pay it off is to continue on the path of being a lawyer.

If the kid could have tried it ahead of time, he’d have realized there are other ways.

Maybe you really care about the community and society and you want to help. If so, being a social worker would have been the better, easier, and more rewarding path.  There are many other ways of accomplishing that goal that aren’t the stereotypical, high-prestige professions.

Writers need to know why they’re writing.  Are you writing because you want prestige and acclaim? Potentially, literary fiction does that better than anything else.

The Nobel Prize is never going to be given to a military sci fi writer who’s having aliens shot by a space race. If that’s your goal, you need to be honest with yourself about it.

Most writers write because they want to make a difference in the world, or they write because they want to provide for their families. Both of those goals can be better accomplished outside of literary fiction because you have the potential to reach more readers.

Fewer people choose to read literary fiction, so you’re only reaching a small group of people. Granted, those people are wealthy, powerful, influential, and well-educated. There’s value in reaching them. But it’s not the only way to reach them. Because you know what? Even people who read literary fiction have a Netflix subscription. They listen to regular music like everybody else.

Thomas: Where can people find out more about you and your book?

Jane: Everything I do spins out from my website, Jane Friedman.com. You can find my newsletters and classes and the rest of it there.

Thomas: Let’s talk about The Hot Sheet, because that’s a useful resource you provide for authors. You summarize all the news that’s going on.  

Jane: The Hot Sheet is “Business intelligence for career authors.” Traditionally published and independently published authors subscribe. It’s for anyone who wants to understand how the industry is changing, what moves are being made by the Big Five (or the Big Four), as well as the tech companies and independent distributors.

I look at new ventures, new agencies, and new imprints, which indicate which direction the winds are blowing in the market. I look at scandals like the Audible Return Gate scandal that happened in 2020.

I try to bring context and a cool head to some of these issues. The indie camp and the traditional camp are often at each other’s necks. I’m trying to get away from that and look at the common goals and interests of authors. We look at the news and how it affects all of us.

Thomas: You wouldn’t think that President Obama’s book would affect you. But when they’re printing over a million copies, and all the printers are running Obama books 100% of the time, you’re in the back of the line. So it does affect you.

Indies are discovering a lot of things through innovation and experimentation that traditional authors can learn from, especially in marketing.

Jane: I wish traditional authors, even literary authors, would pay closer attention to what indies are doing.

Any final tips?

Thomas: Any final tips or encouragement?

Jane: Whatever strategy you’re trying, be patient. It’s a long game. Many novels don’t even get recognized until years after they come out. You have to take one small step at a time. It’s rare that a writer will get a windfall of publicity on a single day.

Thomas: Preach. I couldn’t agree more. That is true in this industry, not just for literary authors, but for all authors. Behind the “overnight success” are decades of preparation. Choose a pace you can maintain for the long term.

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